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Jo'Burg Days: A Dream Of Trains

Memories of train travel in the 1970’s light up this letter by Barbara Durlacher.

Dear Molly,

Here I am in Cape Town having a wonderful time and dying to tell you my latest adventure.

Do you remember a few years ago we took a train trip to Germany? We booked the tickets at Victoria Station in London. When the clerk saw my South African passport, he paused in what he was doing.

“You’ve still got steam trains in South Africa, haven’t you?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I replied, “people love them, although the railways are phasing them out as they convert to diesel and electric.”

“I’m a member of the Steam Train Preservation Society in Britain,” rejoined the young man. “We often send train enthusiasts to South Africa. They love the country and take masses of photos, they come back here to show them to me. It’s a very popular holiday”.


It was terribly hot and crowded in the compartment – we were five women in a six-berth leaving Johannesburg on our 27 hour journey to Cape Town. I asked the conductor if he could move me to a coupé as I really didn’t fancy sleeping with all the old tannies [aunties]. One old girl kept farting, although she tried to disguise it by coughing- but there are some things you can’t hide! The conductor promised that after Kimberley he would see if he could find another compartment, but I’d have to wait until then.

We reached Kimberley at about six where it was even hotter. “We’re waiting for the train from Windhoek,” they said. “It’s bringing passengers to catch the Union-Castle mailship in Cape Town”. I decided to have an early dinner and then if there was an empty coupe I might get an early night.

It was nearly nine by the time the guard called ‘all aboard!’ when from the platform I heard a plummy English voice saying... “and give my salaams to Mummy and Daddy. Say hullo to Michael too. Hope you enjoyed yourself … byee, boys. Have a good trip … byeee!”

Things improved after we left Kimberley when the air got cooler. The wait at Kimberley station in the heat had been dreadful. I was desperate for sleep, so I grabbed my suitcase and moved into the coupé. But I could not go to bed until the conductor arrived to check the tickets. When he did, I reminded him that after Kimberley he’d promised me a coupé.

“Ja, that’s OK, those other passengers haven’t arrived,” he replied. I’d just settled down when two young men arrived.

“These are our seats,” they said angrily.

“But the conductor said the coupé was empty,” I stammered, angry at the loss of my comfortable night’s sleep.

Then I looked more closely.

“I remember you!” I said, “You’re the booking clerk from Victoria Station who loves steam trains!”

Probably I was more amazed by the coincidence than he was; it seemed so extraordinary that out of all the trains he could have travelled on, and all the empty coupés, standing in front of me was the same guy from London who’d talked about steam trains in South Africa. Out of millions of travellers, he’d popped up here. It was he I’d overheard saying goodbye in Kimberley, and here he was standing in front of me! It was an amazing coincidence.

He remembered me, but his real interest was the trains. A big Garratt engine had been attached at Kimberley, ready for the long haul across the Karoo. Now it was pulling hard, and the train was moving fast. I sat enjoying the sensation of rushing headlong through the night and the flow of cool air. The boys were in transports of delight.

Taking sound equipment and a stopwatch from their rucksacks, one counted the telegraph poles flashing past, as the other held a mike out of the window to record the sound of the engine pounding across the emptiness of the Karroo.

“We’re doing 53 miles an hour. Not BAD!” the one fellow said, “When they’ve worked up a head of steam, they’ll reach 65! We’ve never recorded a faster speed than that!”

Their enthusiasm amused me, but I was still irritated that they’d taken ‘my’ coupé.

Then the one turned to me saying, “There’s no need for you to move. We’ll be recording for the next couple of hours and taking notes; we don’t need the seats. We’re getting off at De Aar, the big railway junction. Then we take the ‘Up’ train back to Johannesburg”.

“That’s so good of you,” I replied glad that I’d get a decent night’s sleep without the smelly old women. I never saw the boys again. I expect they spent the night enjoying themselves in their own way, recording their trains. It was my luck that I’d recognised one and he was kind enough to give me their accommodation.

I soon fell into a deep sleep, and was woken later by the slowing of the train. I raised the blind and looked out. In the moonlight, I saw rail-lines in the darkness, criss-crossing, interlinking, running parallel for a few yards then fading into the distance. Shunting engines were busy detaching carriages and reattaching them to trains going to other cities. One carriage over there, another here: a game of noughts and crosses played by experts.

This was De Aar, one of the biggest junctions in Southern Africa, the place where scores of lines from all over the Cape Province met, where additional steam units were attached to passenger and goods trains to provide the power to pull the long trains up the steep gradients of the Hex River Mountains or back across the Karroo. Backwards and forwards, creak, clunk, squeak, rattle and bang …

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake! I need sleep, I’m absolutely exhausted. The noise is driving me crazy, and that damn engine has been shunting for hours,” I muttered as I peered out the window. Finally the noises stopped and now the train stood waiting for the signal to proceed.

Then, across the tracks I saw her.

Hair flying, flimsy white nightdress clinging to her legs, clutching her coat to her breast she stumbled towards the Cape Town train. “Wait, wait,” she panted as she ran, “Wait for meeee … Is that the train to Cape Town? …Wait … don’t go, wait for meeee …”

Woken by our arrival at De Aar, the woman had gone to the toilet at the end of the next carriage. Unaware of the activity of the busy engines, she had not realised that it had been detached and shunted to a spur, waiting to be attached to the Port Elizabeth train. Suddenly, feminine intuition kicked in, and she jumped off the stationary carriage. Starting off in the direction of the only fully formed-up train she could see, she ran, calling out in fright and anguish...

“Wait... Cape Town train..... Guard, Guard, Wait, Wait.... Don’t go, wait for meeeee …” and she scrambled her way across the yard.

Hastily shrugging on a coat, I slipped out of my coupé and hauled her on board. Trembling and hysterical, she shivered and shook, tears streaming down her cheeks, while I led her back to her compartment and settled her in her bunk. Shuddering with fright and exertion, it took her a few minutes to settle down, but at last she drifted off into a deep sleep … no doubt to dream.

A dream of noisy shunting engines, piercing headlights on full, whistling and tooting, while she stood immobile, unable to move out of their path …”

Hope to hear from you soon, Moll, with all the news of New York.

Looking forward to your colourful stories when next I hear from you.

Love to all


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